Romania keeps tight rein on religion. Christians `must remain vigilant'

Buni Cocar and his Baptist parishioners didn't listen when the authorities warned them three times. They continued building an extension to their church in this working-class Bucharest suburb. Then the bulldozers arrived.

``Soldiers blocked off the street, dragged us out of here, and knocked it all down,'' Pastor Cocar says, pointing to an empty yard where his Church of Hope once stood. Curly-haired, boyish-looking Cocar radiates a winning energy, even when he sounds sad.

``I see no more hope,'' he explains. ``I plan to emigrate to the United States.''

Pastor Cocar's loss of hope lies at the heart of an important American foreign policy debate. Pressured by American evangelical Christians and human rights groups who accuse the Romanian government of religious persecution, a growing number of American congressmen want to strip Romania of its most-favored nation trading status.

These Americans cite Cocar as a typical example of what they consider an unrelenting campaign against religion. Like the Church of Hope, they say, churches are razed after congregations spend years trying unsuccessfully to get building permits. Like Cocar, they say, clergymen who challenge government edicts are regularly harassed, arrested, even tortured.

``Two days after President Reagan requested renewal of most-favored nation trade status, Romanian authorities tore down the church,'' says Jeff Collins of Christian Response International, a Washington-based organization. ``We must remain vigilant on behalf of Romanians who suffer because of their personal commitment to Christ.''

But not everyone sees Buni Cocar as a religious hero. ``If he had stopped after the third extension and not insisted on building a high roof, nothing would have happened,'' a Western diplomat says. ``He provoked the government.''

Baptist leaders also disavow Cocar. ``What Brother Buni did was illegal and not in good sense,'' says Vasili Talpos, general secretary of the Romanian Baptist Union. ``He wanted to prepare his departure from the country.''

These conflicting assertions suggest how religion in Romania is a question of relative views. As an orthodox communist regime, Romania promotes atheism and only tolerates religion. This toleration translates into an insistence on controlling all religious activity under the Ministry of Religion.

Unlike in Poland, no independent church can establish iteself. Such a church, however, is not in the Romanian tradition. The Romanian Orthodox Church which represents some 16 million members, 70 percent of the country's population, always has been a creature of the state.

Orthodox hierarchy ``avoids confrontations with the government over religious autonomy,'' says Janet Fleishman of the Helsinki Watch Committee in New York. ``It does not suffer from the sort of persecution that the state inflicts on other denominations.''

American complaints center on these other denominations, predominantly fundamentalist Protestants. Introduced to Romania in the 19th century by missionaries, these groups remain small in number. But their assertive, activist theology contrasts them with the Orthodox and makes them dynamic and fast-growing. Talpos, of the Baptist Union, reports some 100,000 believers and an annual growth rate of more than 10 percent.

The communist attitude toward these Protestants is ambivalent. It bans many denominations such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Nazarenes, and Christian Scientists as ``antisocial.'' But it has included among the country's 14 legal religions the Baptists and several other Protestant groups banned before World War II.

``During the war, Baptist believers were deported,'' explains Minister of Religion Ion Cumpanas, in an interview. ``To be recognized, a denomination only must agree to the Constitution and follow the laws of the country.''

That offer is not innocent. Mr. Cumpanas says the Nazarenes were refused recognition because their members refuse military service. Other unrecognized Protestant sects do not dare apply, he adds. Legalized religions face severe restrictions. The faithful jeopardize their academic and professional careers. ``If you want to go to university, it's best to not go to church,'' says one Western diplomat. According to Talpos, Baptists receive too few building permits for churches. They cannot print Bibles and have too few students -- only four this year -- in their seminary. ``It's a lack of funds,'' says Cumpanas. ``The Ministry of Health wants more doctors trained and, to put it bluntly, I don't think the Baptist need for preachers is more important.''

Vasili Talpos could live with such explanations. He says quiet lobbying, by him and by US groups, has obtained significant results. True, there are only four seminary students. But there were only two last year. True, church building permits are hard to get. But in the last 20 years, Romanian Baptists have built some 25 churches including two in Bucharest in the last two years.

``Don't judge by American standards,'' Talpos says. ``Every day I thank God that in this atheist country I can be a good Christian.''

Buni Cocar felt he could not be a good Christian in Romania. After baptizing many coal miners at his church in the Jihu Valley, he lost his resident permit in 1980. He says Baptist authorities shied away from him. The only post he was offered was at the dilapidated church in Guilesti, which boasts a membership of 20. ``Our leaders considered it a cemetery,'' he explains.

Under Cocar, the church revived. Soon its 100 seats were insufficient to satisfy Sunday-morning demand. Cocar decided to expand. But the municipal authorities refused. Cumpanas explained that the area, which consists of old, crumbling homes was going to be renovated.

The bulldozers were called in -- and Cocar decided to emigrate. Last month he received his passport and US authorities here say he will get an American visa. He expects to be preaching in the US by summer.

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